In the context of early 2008 –with the “Surge” apparently reducing violence in Iraq, with the US Economy in the tank, and with everybody fixated on the presidential primaries as a way to take our minds off the past seven years –it may well be that nobody wants to hear any additional analysis of the war, its causes, or its justifications.
I understand that. But call me crazy, I still believe in that seemingly trite expression: “those who fail to understand the past are doomed to repeat it.” And until we can come to terms with this war in brutal honesty, we risk making the same mistakes somewhere down the line.
One of the “lessons” I fear we are accepting about Sadaam Hussein is this: That he was simply a crazy evil dictator, hell-bent on destroying his country and bringing down the wrath of America.
The conventional wisdom is that absolutely NO ONE –within the government, or without; no pundit or social scientist– could have predicted that Saddam really didn’t have any WMD. No one, they claim, actually believed him when, before the war, his representatives said he had destroyed it all.
If he had destroyed it, then why not let the inspectors in? He must be lying…
That was the conventional wisdom then. And our own poorly edited “intelligence” supported this view. As George Tenet so inelegantly put it, “we were all wrong.”
Republicans and Democrats throughout the government were also quick to say: “Everyone say the same intelligence…”
Who could have known? We were just all wrong…right?
See, I believed Saddam might be telling the truth. I also believed he might be lying. I also believed he might be changing his story intentionally, blowing smoke to throw the whole world off his scent.
Here’s something I wrote to that effect back in 2005. It was in answer to the question: Why didn’t Saddam just admit he didn’t have the WMD and open his country fully to the UN Inspectors?
Here’s what I said back then:
“Because he was an “evil dictator.” And evil dictators rule by fear and intimidation. Were he to have admitted that he’d actually destroyed much of his weapons of mass destruction, he would not have not only been immediately vulnerable to offensive attacks from neighboring countries, but he would have also risked civil war from within. The Kurds and Shiites would have quite possibly been emboldened to rise up against him.
It is not surprising that he would play the game of chicken with his own people and with the West. What is MOST unfortunate is that our government chose to not see that he could NEVER admit to having destroyed his weapons capacity.”
See, I believed this from the very start. Nothing else made logical sense.
Now, IF Saddam were are democratic leader –an elected leader, a leader of a representative democracy– there’s NO WAY he would have played this deadly game of “chicken” with his nation.
But he wasn’t. I always believed he was what he was: an EVIL DICTATOR.
Our problem? When the Bush Government set ultimatums for him, we actually believed we were dealing with some kind of rational person.
We failed to remember that, unlike leaders in our country, Saddam ruled by fear and made decisions from a fear-based matrix.
And this weekend, I saw a most extraordinary interview on 60 Minutes that finally proved this theory to me. It was an interview with FBI Agent George Piro, who was assigned by our government to gain Saddam’s “confidence” after his arrest. Piro’s job was to “befriend” Hussein, in an attempt to get inside his head, and get answers to the most pressing questions our government still had.
The interview provides a fascinating insight into the inner workings of an FBI Agent, and the delicate dance of building “confidence” between a prisoner and interrogator. You can watch the whole thing here. I strongly encourage it.
Piro, an American of Lebanese descent who is fluent in Arabic, was picked for this job from the very first day of Hussein’s imprisonment. Our government wanted to try to get inside his mind and see if he’d reveal some of the most pressing questions about the war:
Did he really not have any WMD?
If not, why not just come clean to the UN Inspectors?
Why play this game of “chicken” with the US?
After months of gaining Saddam’s confidence, he finally opened up to Piro and told him everything. Among the things Saddam admitted was that he never believed that the US would actually invade Iraq. He assumed that the US was just “saber rattling,” as much as he was.
Here is the relevant passage from the 60 Minutes transcript, with the essential lines in bold type for emphasis:
“And what did he tell you about how his weapons of mass destruction had been destroyed?” Pelley asks.
“He told me that most of the WMD had been destroyed by the U.N. inspectors in the ’90s. And those that hadn’t been destroyed by the inspectors were unilaterally destroyed by Iraq,” Piro says.
“So why keep the secret? Why put your nation at risk, why put your own life at risk to maintain this charade?” Pelley asks.
“It was very important for him to project that because that was what kept him, in his mind, in power. That capability kept the Iranians away. It kept them from reinvading Iraq,” Piro says.
Before his wars with America, Saddam had fought a ruinous eight year war with Iran and it was Iran he still feared the most.
“He believed that he couldn’t survive without the perception that he had weapons of mass destruction?” Pelley asks.
“Absolutely,” Piro says.
Think about it for half a second. Really think about it. Saddam WAS an evil dictator. He DID rule by fear. And when you rule by fear, uncertainty is a key part of your arsenal. The element of surprise is a key defensive strategy. For both external and internal security reasons, Saddam needed to portray an aire of invincibility and strength. Show weakness, admit the weapons were gone, and he risked losing power forever.
Did we really believe a brutal dictator would be enlightened enough to choose the security of his own nation above his own skin?
Apparently, we did. At least many in our own government did. We actually negotiated with him and his representatives as if we believed their bluster.
Or, perhaps even more troubling, their bluster reinforced the message of fear that our own leaders wanted and needed to wage the war.
So, a couple of observations….
Rule Number One for Future War Planning:
Take the words and actions of an evil dictator with a grain of salt. Don’t assume you can believe, or disbelieve, everything he says. Just believe he’s acting like an evil dictator would normally act.
Dictators desire self-preservation at all costs, and if you try to take away a crucial defense, don’t be shocked when they don’t react logically.
Rule Number Two for Future War Planning:
When the intelligence is mixed, when the opponent IS an evil dictator, think twice…three…even four times…before rushing to the military option. Make no mistake, despite the conventional wisdom, this war was rushed when there WERE other options.
The facts are, as we now know them, sanctions WERE working. Saddam WAS blustering. But that was a part of his front too. (Oh yeah…the story confirms that Saddam hated Al Quaida…)
If there are other logical/plausible rationales for why the other side is acting the way they are, war should not be the immediate option. And to launch despite all this violates a key tenet of “just war theory.”
Other nuggets from the interview…
We learn why Saddam originally invaded Kuwait in 1990. Turns out, it was because of an insult against Iraqi women. No kidding.
Also from the transcript of the 60 Minutes interview…
“Back then, Saddam accused Kuwait of wrecking Iraq’s economy by stealing oil and demanding repayment of loans. But Piro learned, for the first time, that the brutal invasion was triggered by personal insult.
“What really triggered it for him, according to Saddam, was he had sent his foreign minister to Kuwait to meet with the Emir Al Sabah, the former leader of Kuwait, to try to resolve some of these issues. And the Emir told the foreign minister of Iraq that he would not stop doing what he was doing until he turned every Iraqi woman into a $10 prostitute. And that really sealed it for him, to invade Kuwait. He wanted to punish, he told me, Emir Al Sabah, for saying that,” Piro explains.”
See, we even got that war wrong too. That war wasn’t about the oil for Saddam; although there was an economic component to it. That war was about one guy insulting the women of the other guy’s country. It was about, to use a term cross-cuturally, a kind of deadly-serious “Machismo.”
Whether anyone else is interested in this or not, as the five-year anniversary of the war approaches, I feel these kinds of revelations ARE still important. Because there are other evil dictators out there. Whoever is president, both now and in the future, will have deal with them in some way or another.
I just hope and pray that if we identify them as an evil dictator, we will truly believe that they THINK like one too; and not like we might think, with our Western, logical, and self-preserving, minds.
Otherwise, we may get into yet another war, and come out scratching our heads yet again.
One more, “Oh by the way…”
Piro denied that any “coercive techniques,” such as waterboarding, were used against Hussein.
Says Piro: “I think Saddam clearly had demonstrated over his legacy that he would not respond to threats, to any type of fear-based approach.”